Published: 16/01/2003, Volume II3, No. 5838 Page 6 7

Plans to deregulate pharmacy services will herald the death of the high street pharmacists as supermarkets and large pharmacy chains will be allowed free rein to open wherever they want, according to the body representing community pharmacists.

The Office of Fair Trading has spent the last 12 months examining the future of retail pharmacy services. It is expected to deliver its report within the next few days.

The pharmaceutical services negotiating committee, which represents small independent pharmacists, said it believed the OFT would recommend deregulation, and that this would lead to a free-for-all that could destabilise primary care.

Alastair Buxton, head of NHS services for the PSNC, said: 'Deregulation could destabilise local healthcare because PCTs will not have any assurances that their pharmacists will be there any more.' He said the likely beneficiaries of deregulation would be large chains like Lloyds, Moss and Boots and also supermarkets that want to build pharmacies to attract customers to their out-oftown sites.

He added: 'PCTs will no longer have the power to refuse supermarkets a pharmacy licence. You could see pharmacies clustering around GP surgeries and more remote areas losing out. And the very people who need pharmacists the most, the elderly and new mothers who have mobility problems, will be worse off. It could be a form of social exclusion.'

A survey of 200 GPs published this week by Boots revealed that one-fifth of all GP appointments are unnecessary and could have been dealt with by a pharmacist.

Mr Buxton said that community pharmacists are a central plank of NHS plan policy to take the burden off GPs. 'We have a lot of plans for innovation and modernisation that will ease the pressure on the NHS, but if our future is uncertain they might not be allowed to happen.'

The recommendations of the OFT will go to the Department of Trade and Industry for a final decision, but the Department of Health will also have a say.

Mr Buxton said: 'We hope the DoH will use its influence to make sure there is a balance between the interests of competition and the open market with the long-term interests of the NHS.'

The inquiry has been examining 'controls of entry' over the retail pharmacy market, which had an estimated turnover in 2001 of£18.7bn.

An OFT spokeswoman would not comment on the conclusions of the investigation, but said that it would be published 'sometime this month'.